Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Press of Danger: 007 in the Funny Papers

James Bond probably owes much of his success to the comic strips.
Before the films were made, Ian Fleming's novels were popularized in British newspaper comic strip adaptations, and composer John Barry admitted that he created the iconic music for the first film, Dr. No, based only on a familiarity with the comic strip.
“I didn’t sit down and intellectualize about it, and I've never read a James Bond book,” Barry said. “I’d only seen like a cartoon strip that they used to have in the Daily Mail in England. So I knew it was about a spy. I knew roughly what the essence was, but I never saw the movie. I just wrote the damn thing, you know.”
Remarkable, by the way, how much the comic strip 007 resembled Sean Connery, who had yet to be cast.

'Addams Family:' Making the Most of the Macabre

Pictured in “The Addams Family” are, l-r, Lexie Dorsett Sharp as Grandma, Gideon Johnson as Pugsley, Jesse Sharp as Gomez, Josh Houghton as Lurch, Emmy Burns as Wednesday, Colleen Johnson as Morticia and Tommy Lucas as Uncle Fester. Photos by Keith Stewart for a News-Progress.

By Dan Hagen
Truth is not only stranger than fiction, but stranger even than the Addams Family.
The New Yorker magazine cartoonist Charles Addams once dated a widow named Jacqueline Kennedy, and even proposed marriage to her.
“No,” Jackie replied, adding drily, “What would we talk about? Cartoons?”
Broadway has never shared Jackie’s condescending attitude on that subject. Both comic strips and Broadway musicals are American inventions, and both display the brash energy and optimism that are part of the national spirit.
L’il Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Peanuts, Doonesbury, Superman and Spider-Man all went from four colors to footlights, and so did Addams’ series of humorously macabre New Yorker cartoons collectively referred to as the Addams family.
Colleen Johnson as Mortica and Jesse Sharp as Gomez
And rarely has that transition been more seamlessly successful than in director Therese Kincade’s production of The Addams Family, the best show of a strong summer season at the Little Theatre.
The Addams’ fogbound, cobwebbed mansion in the middle of Central Park is suggested by scene designer Noel Rennerfeldt’s series of shifting cartoonish panels under a looming moon, and the cutely creepy costumes by Jana Henry are picture perfect.
Tyler Mosier’s makeup is dramatically effective, turning the dancing boys and girls we’ve seen all season into almost unrecognizable ghosts from the Addams family crypt.
Emmy Burns is Wednesday Addams (who, come to think of it, must have been the original Goth girl). She’s in love with a boy from the Midwest (Collin Sanderson). When her parents meet his (played by husband and wife Richard and Ann Borders), it’s a marital mess mismatch as epic as the one in La Cage Aux Folles.
Ann Borders as Alice and Tommy Lucas as Fester
The proceedings are overseen by Tommy Lucas as Uncle Fester, in this case a more benevolent version of the bizarre Emcee from Cabaret. Lucas’ gliding asides to the audience are delivered with a secure stage presence.
“You're probably thinking: what could a fat bald person of no specific sexuality know about love?” Lucas asks, teasing the audience with, “So will love triumph, or will everyone go home vaguely depressed?”
Burns’ deadpanned lines hit the right comic note, and Ann Borders gets to turn her Dr. Suessical Pollyanna of a character into a wildcat after being slipped a Mr. Hyde potion. Her table-hopping lament of sexual frustration, Waiting, is a high point.
Top marks to Josh Houghton as Lurch, now the zombified opposite of the loose-limbed Scarecrow he just played in The Wizard of Oz. His precisely controlled movements and facial expressions pull and please the eye for maximum effect in a minimalist role.
Young Gideon Johnson, as Pugsley, has a showstopping song in What If? What a voice that boy has, wondering aloud who will be left to torture him to his satisfaction when his sister weds.
Colleen Johnson has played the crowd-pleasing roles of Mary Poppins and the Wicked Witch of the West already this summer, but her Morticia Addams is her best, cool and cocky and compelling, with clockwork comic timing.
A husband and wife team who are just off the 2014 Addams national tour bring a sleek assurance to this stage. Lexie Dorsett Sharp is terrific as Grandma, stooped halfway to the floor at 102 but still a cougar on the prowl for some 90-year-old hotties.
“ One sip of this will turn Mary Poppins into Madea,” Grandma says to Pugsley of her potion.
“I don't understand your references!” he complains.
“Then stop the damn texting and pick up a book once in a while!”
As the choreographer, Sharp is also responsible for a great deal of the success of the production. The dance moves are angular, exaggerated, sharp and compelling to the eye. Like much of the rest of the show, the dance moves could easily have been either overblown or underwhelming, yet they are not. They’re perfect, and you can see them just pulling the smiles from the audience. The big tango at the end is a particular delight.
Her husband, Equity actor Jesse Sharp, IS Gomez — manic, charming, passionate and witty, his every gesture weirdly and gracefully beguiling.
“Do you have a little girls’ room?” Borders asks him.
“We did once, but we let them all go,” he replies with a shy, sly smile.
Though the first act moves a little more briskly than the second, I must emphasize how sensational this production is as a whole. It’s the kind of a show that makes audience members just turn and grin at each other. The Little Theatre has done a hell of a job with the macabre.
Incidental intelligence: “The Addams Family” — a musical comedy with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice that debuted on Broadway in 2010 — will run here through Aug. 9.
The show has lighting design by Michael Cole, stage management by Jeremy Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The performers include Corbin Williams, Sara Reinecke, Jordan Cyphert, Chloe Kounadis, Emily Bacino, Althaus, Brady Miller, Danielle Davila, Daniel Gold, Harrison Austin and Timmy Valentine (as the form and voice of Cousin Itt, respectively).
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Maddox Provides Perils Unnerving and Uncanny

By Dan Hagen
In her new thriller Daemon Seer, Charleston, IL, author Mary Maddox gets just the kind of running start that I like, engaging the reader in an intriguing situation on page one.
Lu Darlington’s boss confronts her with a true-crime book, “Professor of Death,” having figured out that she was the girl stalked by this serial killer a decade before. Those are the events of Maddox’s previous thriller, Talion, but she has structured this sequel as a stand-alone suspense novel, and having Lu’s nightmarish past catch up with her makes a perfect jumping-on point.
No longer an impoverished and endangered young girl, Lu now works for a company that cyber-spies on corporate employees in a shadowy manner, even as she herself is spied upon by shadowy supernatural forces she thought she’d left behind a decade before. It’s subtle nod to the predatory nature of the universe in which Lu lives.
Tempered by her horrific childhood, Lu has grown up practical and alert, capable of facing simultaneous threats.
And like Dick Francis, Maddox is clever enough to weave her protagonist’s background skills into the plot in useful ways. Learning that her friend Lisa is being stalked by a psycho cop, Lu is able to wield her cyber-spying as a counter-measure.
I was never quite sure, in the first novel, whether the entities that haunt Lu are supernatural or manifestations of some multiple personality disorder. But now, it’s pretty clear that these daemons are independent beings. “Daemon” is a term for semi-divine beings in Greek and Roman mythology. In Lu’s world, involvement with them puts human beings in a position roughly akin to that of a small animal dashing back and forth on an interstate highway.
The beautiful Talion tells her that she must breed for him, subjecting her to pain and passion to show her he holds the whip hand. But Lu — realizing that the entity need not have told her his plans at all, but could merely have manipulated her in to doing what he wants — reasons that he therefore must need something from her, some kind of assent that she might be able to deny him if she can deduce what it is.
Behind Maddox’s narrative, but never impeding it, is a recognizable 21st century America of economically marginalized people — forced to take lousy, morally suspect employment, vulnerable to trumped-up charges. Their quiet desperation is as familiar to them as dried sweat on a Walmart t-shirt, and it’s another factor that heightens the odds against them in their struggle to survive. The very tired ordinariness of their world makes its fantastic elements seem more real.
Adding zest to the recipe is Maddox’s gift for a lyrical phrase: “Golden light stretched my shadow across the patchy grass;” “Her fear skittered through my body and became my fear.”
As Lu faces threats from adversaries both human and inhuman, both unnerving and uncanny, Maddox keeps ratcheting up the suspense. When Lu finds herself in a bidding war between daemons, it turns out that being pursued and trapped by a sadistic sex killer cop isn’t even the most serious of her troubles…
Both Maddox’s Lu Darlington supernatural thrillers are available at and Barnes & Noble Booksellers on line.

Friday, July 24, 2015

When the Avengers Met Doc Savage

"Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker" painting by Bob McGinnis. "Great Gold Steal" painting by Mitchell Hooks
The first Marvel Comics novels were published in 1967 and 1968, and I enjoyed them both (their design clearly owed more than a little to the then-popular Bantam Doc Savage paperback series).
Doc Savage cover by James Bama
They were probably only the fourth and fifth novels based on comic book superheroes, after the Superman hardcover based on the 1940s radio show and two Batman paperbacks inspired by the 1960s TV show.
Apparently Stan Lee objected to the choice of Otto Binder to write the Avengers novel (which did turn out to be mediocre). But Binder went over Lee's head to the publisher to land the job. That explains the fact that Lee did next to nothing to promote the paperback in the comic books. The Captain America novel, written by Ted White in an Ian Fleming-influenced style, was better.
Oddly, although Iron Man is a main character in the Avengers novel, he is not featured in the cover art — something that would never happen today. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Many Resurrections of the Ghost Rider

So Ghost Rider is a supernatural motorcyclist who made a deal with the devil to save his father, and got a flaming skull-head for his trouble?
Well, no. At least, not to America’s dime-store cowboys back in 1949.
Originally, Ghost Rider was an Old West lawman turned trickster dressed in spectral white. The character’s evolution illustrates just how arcane the history of a comic book superhero can be, 80 or 90 years into the genre.
Rex Fury, the Calico Kid, was already a western hero in a backup feature in Magazine Enterprises’ Tim Holt comics. But in the 11th issue, artist Dick Ayers and writer Ray Krank upped the ante by turning him into a 19th century mystery man superhero.
Nearly killed when criminals disguised as Indians hurled him into a waterfall, Fury finds himself in a hidden cave and, like Will Eisner’s the Spirit, decides to return and ride for justice as his own ghost.
Ghost Rider’s dramatic design — a caped white figure with a full face mask, a pale wonder horse and lots of ghostly tricks — proved popular enough to propel the character into a respectable four-year run in 14 issues of his own comic book, plus appearances in other titles. He might have survived longer if the new Comics Code had not driven most horror comics out of business.
The character’s trademark lapsed and, in 1967, writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich joined with Ayers to bring Ghost Rider to Marvel Comics. This time he was one Carter Slade, tricked up in a costume identical to the original and fighting masked bandits instead of supernatural monsters. With westerns dying in popularity, the title ran for seven issues.
Then, in 1972, Thomas, Friedrich, and artist Mike Ploog used only the name of the character when they created Johnny Blaze, the long-running supernatural Ghost Rider who’s been featured in two Nicholas Cage films.
When the Carter Slade adventures were reprinted in 1974, he couldn’t be Ghost Rider, so — retroactively and unfortunately — he became Night Rider. Too late, Marvel realized that the white-clad, masked “freedom fighters” of the KKK had also called themselves night riders.
Oops. Another retroactive name change quickly ensued. Now Carter Slade was Phantom Rider, a title he came to share with a half-dozen successors, including one in the present day.
Meanwhile, AC Comics has reprinted the adventures of the original Rex Fury Ghost Rider, renaming him the Haunted Horseman to avoid conflict with Marvel. And the Carter Slade character even made it into the 2007 Ghost Rider movie in the person of actor Sam Elliott. In the film, the cursed Phantom Rider is a skeleton in a cowboy outfit riding a skeletal horse.
The late Dick Ayers said Ghost Rider remained his most requested art commission. Unfortunately, he saved none of the original merchandising the character inspired, as he told Comics Journal.
“I had three young sons that played cowboys, and they always wanted to be the Ghost Rider, so my sample drifted off,” Ayers said.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

'Ant-Man' Doesn't Shrink from the Challenge

Paul Rudd with one of his trusty ants.
Back from Ant-Man, yet another enjoyable Marvel super-hero origin film that is both respectful of and resourceful with the source material from the comics.
Despite some sort of pacing problems in the first half, the film picks up for a suspenseful and exciting climax, and has the cute humor you would expect from the premise.
The movie has numerous nods to the Marvel universe, and even a unifying dramatic theme about fathers and daughters. The heavy lifting is done by special effects and the serious acting talents of people like Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas, who can unload exposition on you and make you think it's candy. Amazing how much he now sounds like his dad to me.

Friday, July 17, 2015

For One Brief Superheroic Moment

Despite the weird emergencies, Iris West and Barry Allen enjoyed their lives in a sleekly self-assured Central City.

In his book Supergods, Grant Morrison is eloquent in his description of how DC Comics reflected the charm of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and why that couldn’t last long.
Federal officials, anxious about Sputnik despite America’s postwar prosperity, had exhorted the purveyors of children’s entertainment to glamorize science in their stories — a mission that DC editor Julius Schwartz was able to handle deftly, without didacticism.  
“Flash stories were the work of well-adjusted grown-ups who really understood children,” Morrison wrote. “In contrast to the titanic but all too often cruel and cloying sensuality of the Superman and Batman tales, the female leads in (editor Julius) Schwartz books brought a brisk self-assurance to the proceedings.
“In the graceful hands of (Carmine) Infantino or (Gil) Kane, women like Iris Allen, Sue Dibny and Jean Loring were styled in the finest New Look Paris modes. Their hair was cut to keep up with the latest trends. This was partly a result of fallout from the (Comics) Code, which insisted that female characters be realistically proportioned and modestly attired, but it helped turned the Schwartz heroines into hip and pretty exemplars of the Jackie Kennedy style.
“Out of costume, their men wore slacks, blazers and trilby hats or sported short-back-and-sides establishment haircuts. An aesthetic that would one day be called metrosexual was born here in full bloom. They all hung out together, these settled young couples with good jobs, positive can-do attitudes and crime-fighting double lives they still kept secret from their loved ones…”
“They didn’t meet to fight one another, as the later Marvel heroes would do. They didn’t over-emote. They enjoyed picnics, which were routinely disrupted by oddly small-scale, almost polite alien invasions — the kind easily repelled by the deployment of some quirky science fact that rendered the invaders vulnerable to common table salt or H2O. Their sexuality was never dubious or in doubt. Relaxed, cosmopolitan, they represented the epitome of our Kennedy Man, our postwar Madison Avenue pioneer astronaut American role model. Hopeful in the clear light of the morning of the Sun King. Poignant in their certainty.
“And then the president was dead. The golden walls of Camelot collapsed, flimsy as any stage set, to reveal the bloody screaming mires of Vietnam beyond, where two million potential astronauts, artists, poets, musicians and scientists were being lined up to die in the sacrifice of an American generation.
“And with that came the new turn of the wheel, the biggest revolution of all.
“The Marvel superheroes had arrived.”

Thursday, July 16, 2015

About Beauty and Brains

Raram facit misturam cum sapientia forma
“We have Petronius’s Satyricon to blame for this canard, literally “beauty and wisdom are rarely found together.” The myth of ‘beautiful but dumb’ is destroyed by university teachers each time they look up from their notes. What they see is a lecture hall filled with intelligent and attractive students. What the students see may be another matter.”
— Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Little Theatre on the Yellow Brick Road

Colleen Johnson, Compo and Danielle Davila in "The Wizard of Oz" (News-Progress photos by Keith Stewart)
By Dan Hagen
The Little Theatre’s family-focused season, which began with Mary Poppins, continues today with The Wizard of Oz.
And yes, it’s THAT Wizard of Oz, the 1939 MGM film version with which the world is most familiar, slightly expanded and extended with a song by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
Fantasy is a much simpler sell on film, of course, and there’s a moment or two when the capable performers could use a little extra special effects help. Mollyanne Nunn, for example, tries valiantly to be ethereal as Glinda the Good Witch, but could use a boost from something shiny, at least a pin spot.
But what director John Stephens may lose in movie magic, he more than makes up for in the magic of immediacy. All the familiar characters are there, right in front of you, sustained by the performers’ belief in them, something you can see in their eyes. You may be surprised at how well a very strong cast can keep this Baum ticking.
Marty Harbaugh turns in the best performance of his career as Uncle Henry and the Emerald City gatekeeper. And the talents of Little Theatre veterans Glory Kissel and Jack Milo lend weight to Aunt Em and the Wizard.
The instrumental music is recorded, with full orchestration, but the singing voices are live, and deliver all the Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg songs audiences would demand to hear from the film.
Josh Houghton and Danielle Davila
But that doesn’t mean that the stage can’t provide some enhancements of its own. The Scarecrow’s If I Only Had a Brain theme, for example, is enlivened by the presence of three unimpressed dancing crows (Collin Sanderson, Corbin Williams and Brady Miller).
The weight of the show rests on six principal characters, five of them played by humans. Toto is played by Compo, a ringer for the dog in the movie who has sweet shoe-button eyes. He behaves well on stage, even during magical whiz-bangs that cause the canine only a slight nervous tremble.
Colleen Johnson as the Wicked Witch of the West and Danielle Davila as Dorothy, particularly, have the tricky task of emulating Margaret Hamilton and Judy Garland without parodying them, and both deftly thread that needle.
Johnson — green-faced, red-eyed — delights in delivering those devilish threats that have frightened small children for 76 years now. The fact that the witch shares with many women a passion for fashionable footwear springboards us into the show’s one original song, Red Shoe Blues.
Davila has the necessary sincerity for the role of Dorothy, and can put it across to the audience without being cloying, no mean feat. Much of this production’s success rests on this avoidance of missteps, and there are many opportunities to trip up here. Too close to the movie and the show’s a bore. Too much deviation from the movie and the audience leaves dissatisfied. These are dramatic troubles that don’t melt like lemon drops, and yet they are not in evidence here. The overall impression that the show leaves you is one of great charm.
And perhaps the most charming of the lot are the three companions. Jordan Cyphert, who radiates good cheer on stage, is a natural fit for the tin man, the most compassionate of these characters. His makeup, like that of all three companions, is a true treat for the eye. Tommy Lucas is terrific as the cowardly lion, the funniest figure in the show. Lucas has considerable stage presence, but no more than Josh Houghton as the Scarecrow. This actor shares many of the best qualities of Ray Bolger. In fact — let’s just admit it — Bolger was no better in this role than the pliable, likeable, loose-limbed Houghton is here.
You expect wonders in Oz, but the most wonderful part of this show comes as a surprise — it’s Jitterbug, a lively dance number that was cut from the movie. In the witch’s haunted forest, the spooked companions sing, “Oh, the bats and the bees and the breeze in the trees have a terrible, horrible buzz. ... So, be careful of that rascal/Keep away from the Jitterbug.” The companions are forced into a frantic dance by actual Jitterbugs — goggle-eyed, floppy-antenna-ed insect people (endearingly suited up by costumer Jana Henry). The number, Wiki notes, was “…both a jazzy development of the plot and a nod to the then-popular bobby-soxer dance craze.” And, as staged by choreographer Megan Farley, it offers enough sure-fire fun here to frighten any scarecrow.
So if you can’t get over the rainbow, get over here.
Incidental intelligence: The Wizard of Oz continues through July 26. The show has scene design by Noel Rennerfeldt, lighting design by Michael Cole, stage management by Jeremy Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The performers include Daniel Gold, Emily Long, Emmy Burns, Chloe Kounadis and Sara Reinecke.
The Munchkins, poppies and flying monkeys are played by children — Madison Brummer, Rudy Haegen, Emily Long, Grace Lynch, Piper Countryman, Andalyn Hodge, Cian Lynch, Izzy Miller, Liz Owens, Ava Shiver, Wesley Standerfer, Lance Richardson, Callie Standerfer and Kiley Will.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375. 
P.S. Seeing the dress rehearsal last night reminded me of just how much that 1939 movie scared me during its annual airing on CBS when I was, what, 3 years old? Even in black and white, that witch was terrifying to a small child who can conceive of nothing worse than a malevolent, omnipotent “Bad Mommy” bent on his destruction.
I also admire the clever way in which the story plays with, and slightly subverts yet reinforces, the mythic pattern of the hero quest. The young hero is supposed to meet a powerful sage — a Merlin or an Obi-Wan Kenobi — who can supply him with gifts to meet the challenges that loom ahead. Instead, in this story, the supposed sage is an impotent fraud, and the quest is a con. The mythic Trickster figure has secretly supplanted the Sage. The heroine and her companions are thrown helpless against the witch but emerge unscathed by accident, only to find that the fraudulent sage does have gifts for them after all. But, as befits a con artist (or a master psychologist?), the gifts are placebos that serve to trick the protagonists into realizing that they should learn to value what was already within them.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Beach Ball That Frightened the World

When I was 3 years old, a Russian satellite called Sputnik frightened Americans all out of proportion to its beach ball size. The USSR had conquered space, not the U.S.! Increased investments in American public education followed immediately. Therefore, I grew up in a society that paid some serious respect to intelligence, books, learning and knowledge. And that’s another reason why I am continually shocked by 21st century Americans’ worship of stupidity, ignorance and mindless diversion.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

When Shadows Offend...

"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear."
-- Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

When Marlowe Married

No longer down-at-heel private eye Philip Marlowe is shown over his new home by his rich bride:
“Yes, darling,” I kissed her. “I’ll get a pet monkey and after a while you won’t be able to tell us apart.”
“You can’t have a monkey in Poodle Springs. You have to have a poodle. I have a beauty coming. Black as coal and very talented. He’s had piano lessons. Perhaps he can play the Hammond organ in the house.”
“We got a Hammond organ? Now that’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing without.”
“Shut up! I’m beginning to think I should have married the Comte de Vaugirard. He was rather sweet, except that he used perfume.”
“Can I take the poodle to work? I could have a small electric organ, like one of the babies you can play if you have an ear like a corned beef sandwich. The poodle could play it while the clients lie to me. What’s the poodle’s name?”
“A big brain worked on that one.”
“Don’t be nasty or I won’t — you know.”
“Oh yes you will. You can hardly wait.”
— Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker, “Poodle Springs”

Interesting to note that the wisecracking Chandler private detective evolved along the same lines as his inspiration, the wisecracking Dashiell Hammett detective — the tough and aloof Sam Spade became the tough but softening Nick Charles, married to a beautiful, doting heiress. But the detective they came to call the Thin Man would chaff a little less than Marlowe at being “kept.” Marlowe’s quips start to sound a bit churlish, even as they continue to amuse.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Narcissus Narcosis and the Digital Media

Marshall McLuhan saw and foresaw a communications technology that would function more as a reflection of self than of reality. And behold, the 21st century digital media. In a typical McLuhanism, he dubbed it “Narcissus narcosis.” I learned that from one of the books from the library of my late departmental chair James Tidwell. The fact that glaring factual truths can now be not merely disputed but denied and ignored by millions is a function of this.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

'The Fearmakers:' An Unheeded Warning

The senator: “But what if you start tampering with the facts, twisting the truth to further a particular cause or client? You’ll wind up serving your client, but swindling the public.”
Eaton: “You’re saying…”
The senator: “I’m saying that taking public opinion is useful, making public opinion is dangerous. Alan, do you have any idea how many highly financed, full-time organizations we now have set up here in Washington to pressure Congress and government agencies for their particular groups and clients?”
Eaton: “The right of the people to petition the government…”
The senator: “No question about it. And that right must be maintained. But it’s a far cry from one citizen’s three-cent stamped appeal to the professionally packaged campaign, complete from fake front groups with high-sounding titles to pre-written laws ready for our signature and endorsement.”
Eaton: “If money still talks, senator, the little three-cent stamp must have a hard time being heard.”
That’s from The Fearmakers, a 1958 suspense melodrama starring Dana Andrews about the sinister side of public relations. Talk about your unheeded warnings.

Friday, July 3, 2015

American Conservatives Have Only One Principle

In his book The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank observed that only one thing always holds true about American conservatives: “The interests of business are central and defining, while every other aspect or strategy of the movement is mutable and disposable. Indeed, even the cult of the free market, which appears to be such a solid, fixed element of the business mind, is malleable as well, with conservatism handing out the bailouts as soon as the going gets tough on Wall Street.
“These mutations are particularly remarkable when considered as the statements of a movement that claims to ground itself in ‘tradition.’ One year, the working-class, values-voting ‘hard hats’ are trumpeted as all-American heroes; on another occasion, they are an uppity canaille requiring a whiff of grapeshot. Thinly veiled racism elects a host of Republican free marketeers; soon afterward, the system’s big thinkers can be heard proclaiming racism to be the great enemy of free markets. Patriotism is a virtue under all circumstances — until the time comes to declare the nation-state a relic of the protectionist past. Combat veterans are to be venerated — until they run for office as liberal Democrats. Even communism itself becomes perfectly acceptable when, as in Red China, it mutates into a way of enforcing market discipline.
“The needs of business stand like a rock; all else is convenience, opportunism, a bit of bushwah generated by some focus group and forgotten the instant it is no longer convincing. Fundamentally amoral, capitalism is loyal to no people, no region, no heroes, really, once they have exhausted their usefulness — not even to the nation whose flag the wingers pretend to worship.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Swing!" A Brisk Trip on the Light Fantastic

Jordan Cyphert and Megan Farley in the Little Theatre's "Swing!" News-Progress photos by Keith Stewart
By Dan Hagen
The scene: an urban night club during World War II, and if the atmosphere is particularly realistic, that’s because the bricks and the loading dock are the actual back wall of the Little Theatre, cunningly incorporated into the scenery.
More than Jen Price-Fick’s set is cunningly done in this musical, Swing!, directed and choreographed by Amber Mak and Todd Rhoades.
Unencumbered by plot in any but the most abstract sense, Swing! swings from bebop to scat singing to torch songs at a brisk pace that never flags.
Sound problems lost us Brady Miller’s Boogie Woogie Country during the dress rehearsal, but those ought to be fixed when the show opens today.
Colorfully costumed by Jeannine La Bate (orange shirts, blue fringed cowboy jackets, the works), this show is all song and — particularly — dance, and as my friend Bart Rettberg pointed out, a great deal could have gone wrong with the show that didn’t. The dancing is furious yet fairly flawless.
Lee Ann Payne and John Stephens perform ‘All the Things You Are’
When this show opened on Broadway in 1999, the people who could remember these song and dance numbers first-hand were already in their 60s. Many are now gone, a fact that has to shift the reception of the show somewhat. We’re looking at a lost world being evoked.
I think two of the songs bookend World War II particularly well. One is the high-octane delivery of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by Megan Farley, Danielle Davila and Chloe Kounadis, a number particularly fixed in time that is nevertheless curiously timeless. The other is I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Lee Ann Payne and illustrated with a ballet by Cameron Edris and Davila. The bittersweet reality of wartime loss remains haunting in that song.
I want to single out three of those dancers — Edris, Miller and Daniel Gold. They rocket across that small stage, leapfrogging people, backflipping and self-trampolining spread-eagled in a try at defying gravity. Edris and Davila also charm in the pantomime-like Dancers in Love.
Lyrics aren’t always necessary. Jordan Cyphert, so naturally sunny, slinks well past sundown in an Apache dance with Farley to the tune of Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers’ 1939 jazz standard Harlem Nocturne (you know, the Mike Hammer theme). And the singers and dancers take a break to let the onstage orchestra shine in the jazz standard Caravan. Adam Blakey and Robert Brooks have a couple of fine saxophone solos during the evening.
John Stephens and Corbin Williams take the period love songs in easy stride. While Williams is sweetly cynical in Throw That Girl Around, the clarion-clear Stephens sings the lovely Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein number All the Things You Are.
The dance finale, with all the dancers popping like corn, is one crowd-pleasing highlight of the show. Another more intimate one is a pair of favorite done-her-wrong songs played as a dialogue between youth and a sadder, wiser maturity.
Colleen Johnson belts out the great torch song Cry Me a River (really written in the 1950s but perfectly at home here) and is answered by Payne with what her mamma done told her in the equally lyrical Blues in the Night. When Johnson hammers the “NOW you say you love me…” lyric, she finds us a frisson.
You know, the last six decades haven’t only seen corn and soybeans blooming in the Central Illinois summer sun, but professional theatre too, thanks to the Little Theatre in Sullivan.
Art in the rural Midwest. We tend to forget what a rare, exotic and delicious crop that is, if only because the unlikely longevity of that theater has made us so familiar with it.
But we shouldn’t forget that. The day-to-day courage of theatrical professionals always impresses me. They work hard. Their lives are bright and busy and lonely, their defeats public and their triumphs ephemeral. They take risks we probably wouldn’t, enduring chancy incomes and itinerant existences to fulfill the incandescent promise of their own talent. And they share the resulting light and warmth with us a dozen times a week on stage, in the children’s show and the main musical, all for nothing more than a Visa charge and an ovation.
However any particular evening’s performance goes, I always appreciate that, and wanted to take this opportunity to say so.
Incidental intelligence: Swing!, a musical conceived by Paul Kelly, spotlights the music of the Swing era of jazz (1930s–1946) and artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, and continues through July 12.
The show has lighting design by Michael Cole, stage management by Jeremy Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The performers include Danielle Jackman, Mollyanne Nunn and Collin Sanderson, and the musicians include Colin Rambert, Erik Opland, Dan Wendelken, Austin Seybert and Chris Hartley.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.